“Synagogues are more than public places for worship; they are the most important institution in Judaism.” Iuliu Herscovici expressed this feeling in his book, The Jews of Vicksburg, MS. Buildings were not necessary for the purpose of worship, as a single room in which a congregation could gather undisturbed served the same purpose. When a synagogue or temple was constructed, it stood out as a symbol of public and political tolerance of the Jewish community. Vicksburg, ingrained in cultural diversity, became an area in the south that would see one of the symbols erected in the heart of the city.
The Anshe Chesed congregation precedes their first temple by at least twenty years. The first services held in town were done at the home of Bernard Yoste beginning in 1841. News of the opportunities available at Vicksburg spread throughout the country, enticing other Jewish families to move into the area, and causing a rapid growth within the congregation. By 1868, a decision was made to have a synagogue built here in Vicksburg. The announcement made in Vicksburg Daily Herald reflected the optimistic sentiment and support of the town stating, “There are few cities in the United States where the same friendly spirit exists between the different religious creeds as in this city.” News of the congregation’s decision to build the temple was picked up by the National Jewish Press stating, “…fellow Israelites of said city [Vicksburg] to contribute in good earnest, and to their ability, toward erecting a synagogue in Vicksburg as a social and religious necessity and duty in the view of the increased number of them residing there.” With local and national support behind them, the Jewish community’s success became imperative.
The Anshe Chesed Temple at Vicksburg would be the first Jewish house of worship erected in Mississippi. Before plans could be drafted for the building, a location needed to be established. Land located on Cherry Street between Clay and China Street was acquired from Daniel W. Floweree in July of 1868 for a sum of $3,500, which would be paid out in installments over a three year period. When plans for the building had been made by Ryan & Brothers (architects for the building), the estimated cost reached $20,000 (the final cost was closer to $25,000). The temple was described as being eighty-two feet in depth and forty-two feet wide, five windows in Gothic shape with iron sills on both the east and west walls, windows of stained glass, and the interior installed with pews for seating two hundred comfortably. Funds for the building were acquired through several avenues. The Ladies of the Hebrew Benevolent Society organized a ball for the community of Vicksburg, which raised $1,000 despite the dreadful weather that day. Nearly $12,000 was acquired through the purchase of pews by the congregation, with the remaining amount being given by members of the congregation. With the groundwork laid, it was time for the groundbreaking ceremony.
Before work on the temple could begin, a cornerstone laying ceremony was held. The local community encouraged the congregation to hold nothing back for the event, and offered full support and assistance to the Jewish community. The event was a massive undertaking, and brought Jewish families from 20 different cities across the nation to Vicksburg to witness the spectacle. In addition to the Jewish community and the local support, several dignitaries come out as well. This included the Governor of Mississippi, General Alvin C. Gillem (commander of the Vicksburg military district), the mayor and city council, Judge J. W. M. Harris, editors of the local newspapers, and ministers and religious leaders of many different Protestant denominations. The cornerstone itself was made of white granite inscribed in Hebrew with the lines “K. K. Ansche Chesed” (Kehillah Kedushah or sanctified congregation) and underneath on the second line reads the Hebrew date 21 Elul 5628 (the date the cornerstone was laid). With the cornerstone in place, construction of the temple would be completed in 1870, and the final payment made in 1871.
The period from 1870 – 1890 would see a huge growth of the Jewish community in Vicksburg. Anshe Chesed’s congregation agreed that the temple would need to be expanded, and $10,000 was set aside for the renovations. Work was delayed stalling it’s completion until August of 1893. Although Anshe Chesed Temple had been closed for nearly ten months during the renovation, the final product was “beautiful and imposing.” Exterior work had made extensive alterations to its appearance completely changing the main entrance to the building. Inside the temple, a new organ was installed, utilities were upgraded including the addition of electricity, and the sanctuary compacity was increased from 200 to 500. Anshe Chesed Temple would remain in use by the Jewish congregation until the 1970s when the new Synagogue was built on Grove Street.
Throughout the 1970s, the interior of the temple was striped before being sold to John Lee in 1980. Pews from the temple were sold to Holly Hill Baptist Church and the Old Oakridge Baptist Church, the one inch pine floor in the main sanctuary was transferred to Ernest Thomas’ office on Levee Street, and the remaining materials were transferred to the new Anshe Chesed Synagogue. Lee used the building for storage purposes for two years before determining that restoration of the structure would be too costly. He was denied a permit from the city’s Board of Architectural Review for the demolition of the building, but resubmitted his request to the mayor and aldermen who granted him permission. The decision was met with great resistance within the Vicksburg community, and members of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historical Preservation and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History petitioned to reverse the decision. Despite their efforts, demolition was considered the only realistic option. The Anshe Chesed congregation kept themselves from becoming involved in the debate for a couple of reasons. As described by Iuliu Herscovici, “they had sold the building, and no longer had legal standing…,” and “according to Jewish teaching, a synagogue cannot be demolished until another is built. At the time of the demolition debate, the new Jewish temple was finished and holding services.” Demolition of the temple was completed in 1982 leaving a void in the city where this once great symbol of acceptance stood.See a typo? Report it here.